Categories: Lifestyle

Let someone else do the driving

– Taking the bus to Calgary and then using that city's transit tour options allows travellers to take in the sights --such as the well-known Family of Man statues -- without inconvenience.

St. Albert has much to boast about. Often rated as tops in Canada for safety and liveability, the city has great schools, abundant green spaces and even branding as a botanical beauty. But, we’re also a city – and, in fact, a province – of car- and truck-loving drivers, heavily focused on the shortage of park and ride spaces at the mall, or the glut of speed traps around town.

A 2014 Edmonton census shows that more than 70 per cent of people drive to work – only about 16 per cent take transit. In St. Albert, some 3,000 riders take a bus into Edmonton each morning, with 40 per cent university-bound. For some, it may be the convenience and cost-savings of using a bus over a car, while others like the environmental aspect of sharing the ride. Whatever the case, more are discovering the benefits of the bus.

Geoff Rodes, director of operations, Ancillary Services, at the U of A, said student consumption of parking has gone down in the past five-plus years, with 83 per cent of undergrads saying they use transit to and from school and another 8.3 per cent opting to walk, cycle or skateboard – that’s according to a spring 2014 student survey.

In St. Albert, park and ride (and the lack of it) is an ongoing issue – one of the most pressing the city currently faces – according to Will Steblyk, manager of planning and customer service for St. Albert Transit.

“We are a growing community, and while we are well-served with a local network and excellent commuter network into Edmonton, there continues to be limited park and ride options in St. Albert,” he said.

St. Albert now has 550 park and ride spaces at Village Transit Station (VTS), St. Albert Centre Exchange and the Christian Reformed Church (across from VTS), plus a small area of the Village Landing shopping centre. An additional 190 paid parking spots ($4 per day in coins) is available on a first-come, first-served basis at the St. Albert Inn.

A planned $30 million park and ride facility to the immediate southwest of the city (within the Anthony Henday corridor and Campbell Rd./St. Albert Trail area) is making slow progress, as St. Albert must still negotiate an agreement from the province and the City of Edmonton to use the land.

“The majority of our riders get to the transit station by way of local transit – with no need for park and ride,” Steblyk said. “St. Albert Transit has to operate two systems, the local and commuter network, which is significant for a city our size. We do make every effort to offer the best service where it’s needed.”

Busing in style

Most of us drive the 3.5 hours between Edmonton and Calgary without a second thought – barrelling down the stretch of the QE2 with only a quick coffee and gas stop in Red Deer. Whether it’s for school, a business meeting or weekend getaway, most of us who have wheels, use them. And why wouldn’t we, when we jump in the car for much shorter jaunts, to the convenience store or even the park – where we then get out for a walkabout or to play some catch?

I’ve only ever driven to Calgary from St. Albert, but with a chance for a two-day getaway, I decided to embrace the commuter mind-set and go car-free for my stay in downtown Cowtown. On a recent sunny Wednesday morning, I boarded the Red Arrow to Calgary from a south Edmonton hotel pick-up spot with a dozen or so other passengers – solo travellers with a small suitcase or briefcase, and a few students with backpacks.

“I like being able to get a single row seat,” said Judy Bazant, a senior coming from visiting her grandkids in Edmonton and heading back to her Calgary-area home. “I’ve used this bus many times – I don’t have to worry about the highway traffic and I can just watch the world go by outside the window. It’s a comfort to have a bathroom onboard, too. I think it’s a Jim Dandy way to go.”

Yes, a bathroom – no pit stop needed at a highway gas station to use the facilities, nor for a coffee. This luxury ride has free pop, water, coffee, tea and cookies on offer at the back of the bus, not to mention Wi-Fi, reclining seats and a two-hour movie to pass the time. Not too shabby at all. The three hours passed quickly and soon the bus was in the heart of Calgary – the Stephen Avenue pedestrian area with shops and restaurants, the Calgary Tower, live theatre and the mountain-green waters of the Bow River – all just steps away from the bus station. I wasn’t missing the car for a second.

Hotel? Just a couple of blocks that way, a pleasant walk on a warm, late summer day. Even the next day, when the weather turned cold and rainy, getting around on foot was no trouble. A tourism officer in the Calgary Tower pointed out a small, local tour company with a dry bus and tours of the city core – that was my ticket out of the rain and an enjoyable way to see Calgary’s sights on someone else’s ride.

The late afternoon express bus back to Edmonton was full, mostly with business travellers, but it was the same pleasant ride along the busy highway, with the same free snacks and same movie to lull me in and out of a nap. I had no worries about changing lanes in traffic, just a lazy few hours on a quiet bus until it dropped me back at the south side parking lot and to my waiting car. I could get used to this.

Red Arrow rules

Celebrating its 35th anniversary, Red Arrow shuttles more than 300,000 bus passengers each year between Calgary and Edmonton – the busiest route, with several daily departures – as well as to Fort McMurray, Red Deer and Lethbridge. Featuring reserved single and double row seats, tray tables, free Wi-Fi, power outlets and complimentary snacks and beverages, this high-end service is a hit, especially with business and leisure travellers.

“We get a high percentage of government employees, MLAs, and business travellers. Riders can work onboard with no down time in airport line-ups,” said Red Arrow general manager John Stepovy. “I think more companies are seeing this as the fiscally responsible way to go for business travel. It’s much cheaper than a flight between Edmonton and Calgary, and it makes for fewer cars on the road and more productive employees.”

A one-way trip between Edmonton and Calgary is about $70, with stops at the Calgary airport, north side and downtown. Red Arrow also offers an auto club discount, frequent rider deals, and flex-pack and multi-pack buys.

“We’re an alternative to air travel or a personal vehicle. This is a safe, convenient way to go,” said Stepovy. “And we’re seeing more of the younger generation – who might car share or not buy a vehicle at all – use this form of transport too.”

Bus on a budget

For students or anyone on a budget, carriers such as Greyhound and ebus operate between Alberta’s major cities too. That national operator and Red Arrow’s more economical sister, ebus offer one-way fares between Edmonton and Calgary for about $40. It’s first come, first-served here with no seat reservations, and no rows with single seats (or free cookies), but the price is right and the ride is safe.

Running out of the Red Arrow offices in Edmonton and Calgary, ebus even has a convenient weekend stop off for post-secondary students who live out of town and want to find an economical way home. On Thursday, Friday and Sunday during the school year, ebus does an evening pick-up/drop-off at the U of A’s Lister Hall ETS Stop #2666 (south side 87 Ave, East of 117 St.).

Lucy Haines: Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.